Brexit: What next for Britain's EU exit as Article 50 looms?
SETTING OUT AIMS: : Some MPs worried that Prime Minister Theresa May would offer them a debate only once it was too late to do much about what was in the deal.
By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 8 Feb 2017
Brexit has barely been out of the news in the last few months and today marks an important landmark with Article 50 due to be sent on its way by MPs. So what next for the process of negotiating Britain's exit from the European Union? Parliamentary Correspondent Patrick Daly reports.
THE Article 50 bill may only be 143 words long but MPs will surely be sick of talking about it by tonight.
Tiring evenings of back-and-forth arguments will come to an end, after almost a fortnight of debates, this evening when MPs have their say on the Third Reading of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. A majority vote will send the draft legislation onto the House of Lords for consideration.
There are no surprises expected regarding the final vote given that only last week MPs voted by 498 to 114 to give Theresa May the power to trigger Article 50 and start Britain's exit process.
The argument this week has focused more on what part Parliament will play during the negotiation process, when the Prime Minister will look to get Britain a trade deal with the EU.
Theresa May set out in her white paper, the formal document declaring the Government's Brexit aims, that both Houses of Parliament would get a vote on whatever deal she comes back from Brussels within the next two years.
But some MPs worried that Mrs May would offer them a debate only once it was too late to do much about what was in the deal and believed they could be forced to sign-up to the terms, even if it was bad news for the country and their constituents.
They wanted guarantees that parliamentarians would get the chance to vote before a deal went to the European Parliament so that they could make adequate changes beforehand.
Labour MP Chris Leslie asked for assurances that, even if there was no deal struck within the two-year exit process, that MPs would get a say, and tabled an amendment to that effect.
The amendment was not successful, with the Government winning by 333 votes to 284 on Monday evening.
Despite that, Brexit minister David Jones told MPs on Tuesday that the Prime Minister would accommodate a vote in Westminster before Members of the European Parliament cast their vote in what was seen as a major concession. However, he made clear that a decision to vote any deal down would mean Britain being left out on a limb – the country would be out of the EU and with no trade arrangement to boot.
There is no going back to the negotiating table, Mr Jones told MPs.
Labour MP for Great Grimsby, Melanie Onn, said the Government must provide the country with "confidence" in the deal it was thrashing out.
She said: "We should all be interested in the withdrawal, to give us the confidence that the Government has done all it can to get the best out of Brexit and that there is nothing missing or ambiguous that might not serve the UK's best interests through the negotiations."
Northern Lincolnshire Conservatives were not convinced that Parliament needed guarantees about a vote on the deal.
Market Rasen MP, Sir Edward Leigh, said: "The British people have made their desire for Brexit clear and so the Government needs to get on with business. Adding further hoops to jump through will only increase uncertainty."
Martin Vickers, Conservative MP for Cleethorpes, was equally as forceful in rejecting the idea, saying he wanted nothing to "bind" the Prime Minister and her team during the negotiations.
"I was totally opposed to (Mr Leslie's amendment)," said Mr Vickers.
"The British people have voted to leave the EU. They voted to regain control of their borders, their financial policies, to not be under the jurisdiction of European courts and to control our fishing policies – and much else.
"Any conditions that we try and tag on and bind the Government with during the negotiations are just making it more difficult for them to deliver what the public want and plays into the hands of our European neighbours, so they can use it as a bargaining counter.
"We want the Government to have a free hand. People don't want 'ifs and buts'."
But what if the deal Mrs May came back with was damaging in any way to Northern Lincolnshire's economy – wouldn't he have wanted a chance to express his dissatisfaction? What if the Government signed-up to putting export charges on seafood products being processed in factories in Grimsby, for example?
The backbench MP replied: "I welcomed, when (Brexit Secretary) David Davis made his last speech in the Commons, the inclusion of seafood in the white paper. It gets a specific mention.
"I asked for reassurances that our fishermen would not be sold down the river as they were before and he said yes. We had a categorical answer on that."
Mr Vickers said he also had verbal confirmation from Mr Jones, a junior minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, that he would be happy to meet with seafood companies situated on the south bank of the Humber to discuss with them the impact of Brexit on their businesses.
Another set of amendments which didn't make it any further was Ms Onn's two on workers rights. The former trade union organiser wanted to see EU-given rights transferred into UK law before the split from the 28-country bloc and registered two amendments to the Article 50 legislation to ensure that happened.
But the deputy speaker, who rules on amendments, decided they were "not in the scope of the bill" during this week's 'whole House' committee stage.
Ms Onn told the Telegraph she would be making her displeasure at the decision plain during today's final debate. She criticised the Government for not having made more reassurances for those at the coal face before now.
"This week (was) an opportunity for the Government to show that they really do take workers' rights seriously. We have heard the rhetoric but not seen any action," she said.
"No one should want to see their rights at work being used as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations, and certainly MPs should have (had) the opportunity to scrutinise this."
Again though, Tory MPs in the region were not on the same page. Sir Edward said Downing Street had already made clear that its next steps would take care of workers' rights. He accused Ms Onn of "posturing" on the issue.
The veteran MP said: "The Great Repeal Bill will take all existing EU legislation that currently applies to Britain and enshrine it in UK law, so Melanie Onn's amendment is a bit of posturing for the headlines."
After the Great Repeal Bill, which is expected to be introduced during the Queen's Speech in May, Sir Edward said the overburdensome tax system in the UK must be on the post-Brexit to-do-list.
"After Brexit, we will be free to tinker and adapt laws to suit our own situation," he continued.
"In the immediate aftermath, I hope the Government will implement policies to strengthen growth and secure our status as the bridge linking Europe to the rest of the world. For one thing, the simplification of our morbidly obese tax code must be a priority."
The big story from last week's Second Reading vote was how it split the Labour Party, with 47 MPs disobeying a three-line whip to vote against Article 50. Their number included those on the front bench and even party whips – people who work in the very office the three-line whip had been issued from.
One of leader Jeremy Corbyn's closest allies, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, skipped the landmark vote, declaring that she had a migraine.
There have so far been no repercussions for their disobedience with sources close to the whips' office indicating that there would be no action taken by the leadership.
A three-line whip – usually deemed to be a strict order from on high – is expected to be issued for the Third Reading, meaning scope for another rebellion – and possibly even bigger than the last.
Ms Onn indicated that she would, as she did during the Second Reading, vote with Mr Corbyn tonight and back starting the Brexit process.
"I have always said that, despite campaigning and voting for remain, now the country has decided to leave the EU, that I would do everything to hold the Government up to scrutiny but that I would not seek to frustrate the process of leaving," said the town's MP.
There is no need to ask long-term Eurosceptics such as Mr Vickers, Sir Edward or even Brigg MP Andrew Percy which way they will vote on Article 50 tonight – they have been waiting for this moment for the entirety of their careers.
And given Sir Edward has had a seat on the green benches since 1983, that has been an awfully long wait.
They, far more than those on the opposition benches, believe a good deal for the country will be forthcoming, meaning Article 50 is the start of something great for Britain.
Mr Vickers said they might have to wait until the 11th hour but that a deal would be done by European leaders and Mrs May.
"I don't think we should be tying the Government's hand at all and demanding a running commentary – we should let them get on with it," said the backbench MP.
"Yes, let's have a broad update every two or three months and let them come back with the deal.
"If Parliament votes it down then we are still out of the EU. The clock will be ticking.
"I expect it will be an 11th hour deal. When the clock is ticking towards midnight people like Angela Merkel and the French president will think 'Hang on – we have to sort this out'."